The Woks of Life

Sarah, Kaitlin, Judy, and Bill Leung

New Jersey, USA
The Leung family cooking in the kitchen. Photo credit: Christine Han The Leung family gathered around the dining table. Photo credit: Christine Han
Cantonese Pork Belly. Photo credit: The Woks of Life
A family affair

One year out of college in 2013, Sarah Leung found herself unsure of what she wanted to do next. "I had a vague idea of something in media, writing, or marketing, but I wasn't sure," she says. "On the side, I started a blog called The Woks of Life with my parents and sister - which was a good distraction from trying to figure out what would come next."

The Leungs began using their blog as a space to record family recipes. "We started capturing recipes that my parents prepared for my sister and I growing up," she says. "We had a bit of a rude awakening when we were in college, we realized we had no idea how to make some of our favorite foods." Sarah's mom moved to the U.S. from Shanghai when she was 16, and her dad was a first generation Chinese American whose family owned a Chinese restaurant in New York. Both brought their love for food into their family and raised their children on Shanghainese staples and home-cooked Cantonese food.

Sarah's mom (Judy), dad (Bill), and sister (Kaitlin), all still work on the site today, each crafting their own content and niche. By 2015, the site wasn't just a side hobby; millions of people were coming to the site to discover new recipes. "There are a lot of misconceptions about cooking Chinese food at home, so we try to demystify it," says Sarah. "We have a 10-essential ingredients guide that gives you the basic kitchen staples to get started, and we highlight a lot of really quick and easy recipes." People love their Chinese BBQ pork and Sarah's favorite is their stuffed chicken with sticky rice recipe - "I used to ask for it at every family gathering growing up," she says. "It's actually the dish that motivated me to start the blog."

The site now serves as a way to "record our family's history through food and stories," says Sarah. The Woks of Life also highlights traditional Chinese cooking that can be harder to come across in Chinese restaurants in the U.S. "Before starting our blog, it was really difficult to find Chinese recipes written in English," says Sarah. "We hear a lot from people writing in saying ‘these recipes help me feel closer to my heritage' or ‘my grandma passed away, and I thought these recipes were lost, but yours tasted the same' – hearing feedback like that is incredibly rewarding and motivates us."

Wonton soup. Photo credit: The Woks of Life
Cooking up a business

As the traffic and positive feedback grew, the Leungs doubled down on creating content. "We'd spend a weekend together working on and photographing 8 recipes a day and getting things set up to go live on the site and then do that again 2-3 weeks later," says Sarah. They also started looking at other blogs to figure out how to make this a business. "We saw other bloggers that we admired using ads on their site," she says. "We initially tried to bootstrap it and figure out how to place the ads ourselves, but it was incredibly complicated." Instead, they partnered with AdThrive, a Google Certified Publishing Partner, to manage their ads so they could focus on content. That decision paid off - literally. "We started making a real income with display ads, all while providing our recipes for free to our readers, and it became a clear and viable career path," Sarah says. "In April 2019, I left my job and started working on the site full time, and it's been amazing. I love what I do – we all love it." The site now reaches about 6 million page views monthly and peaks around Lunar New Year when they receive over 8.5 million page views.

Sarah and her family primarily rely on their ad revenue to grow the business. "Ad revenue basically supports our entire business. We wouldn't really be able to keep going without it," Sarah says. "It allows us to provide all this content for free for our readers, which helps us grow our audience and enables us to run and work on the site full-time so we can create the best and most helpful content possible."

Enabling that free access is not only important to Sarah, but also a smart business decision. "Large publishers can charge a subscription fee and gate their content. But for a small family-run business like ours, we're not in a position where people would be willing to pay a subscription fee. And even if we were, it doesn't sit right with me that some people wouldn't have access," she says. "Our goal is to make our recipes available to everyone – we want people to feel empowered in the kitchen and cook food that they love. And we don't want these recipes to die out. It's important that they stay in people's consciousness. A lot of that is making these free and accessible."

“Our goal is to make our recipes available to everyone – we want people to feel empowered in the kitchen and cook food that they love. And we don't want these recipes to die out... A lot of that is making these free and accessible.”
Sarah and Kaitlin cooking. Photo Credit: Christine Han
Leaning on Google tools to collaborate

As the site has evolved into a business with the four Leungs working together, they've turned to Google tools to help them collaborate. "We use Google Workspace in our day-to-day work," says Sarah. "Tools like GMail, Sheets, Docs, and Slides are amazing, so that we can all collaborate in real time. Plus, the ability to store everything in one place in Drive makes everything so much easier."

The team also turns to Google Analytics to monitor the performance of their posts and Trends to see what people are searching for. "Analytics helps us monitor how our content performs and learn more about what our readers are interested in and enjoying. And Trends helps us identify which topics might be peaking seasonally that we should lean into," Sarah says.

Taking food back to its roots

As Sarah and her family look to the future of the site, they're excited about the expansion into new areas. "My sister has been really focused on building our YouTube content," says Sarah. "And I'm working on tips for gardening and making farm-to-table food from a Chinese perspective. We have many readers who don't live in urban areas and don't have access to Chinese vegetables, so I'm excited to show people how to grow these vegetables on their own and cook with them at home."

The Woks of Life team will continue to help serve people from all "walks of life" as they grow their site. And, Sarah's excited to keep it a family business: "we love working on the site and getting to learn more about ourselves, our heritage, and our family in the process."

About the Publisher

Sarah Leung is one of the founders of The Woks of Life, a food blog she started with her family and that they continue to run to this day. The site now helps millions of people each month learn how to make Chinese cuisine at home.
Sarah and her family. Photo credit: Christine Han